Some of Australia’s best bloggers have been losing sleep, backing away or even giving up the game because of a series of dust-ups around the issue of comments policies, and the rather appalling trolls who enter debates only to abuse, threaten and offend. It’s all pretty lurid, but an interesting issue as the blogosphere invents itself and the corporate media try to keep up.

Nicholas Gruen of Club Troppo has been losing sleep after this seemingly dry debate about tariffs and the automotive industry.

He received an abusive post from an anonymous reader, and asked them to identify themselves before he would post it. Before he knew it, the poster had gone elsewhere to cry “censorship” and Club Troppo was being derided as “Club Faggot”. Club Troppo’s accounts of events are here and here.

One of the loci of controversy is Catallaxy, which has a “libertarian” comment policy and for that reason runs a lot of abuse.

In the last few weeks one of that sites’ most interesting bloggers, Andrew Norton, has left and set up his own blog, with a strict comments policy. He won’t directly criticise his old home, but says:

Some people are put off by the electronic shouting matches that sometimes develop. Blogs with stricter comments policy give conflict-shy people a forum, and my blog falls into that category. A good thing about blogging is that there is no need for a single approach.

Jason Soon of Catallaxy has defended his comments policy and had some derisive things to say about Club Troppo.

Meanwhile Weathergirl, a blogger from the left of the spectrum who used to write at Larvatus Prodeo, has backed away altogether – confining herself to occasional posts on sites with firm comments policies. She has written on the issue here and also says:

I see myself as a citizen journalist and I thought this medium would be ideal to thrash out issues. Being challenged by people like Andrew Norton is great, even though I find his views objectionable. He’s civil, he engages with the issues, and he never resorts to dirty tactics. He makes you think. Trolls, on the other hand, will go to every length to trip you up instead of engaging with the argument. To them, it’s not about challenging your points, but undermining you with dishonest tactics.

Weathergirl was “outed” in this debate, after she wrote under her real name for Crikey. After this, she says, “On two Catallaxy threads the trolls decided to discuss the merits or not of my looks: they’d found online photos of me I didn’t know existed. Another troll put up a post about me on his site, calling me a Commie Wh-re and stupid sl-t, which was a laugh, but you’ve got to wonder what else these type of extremist bullies are up to. You wonder if they’re thugs in real life or just sad old ideologues with nothing else on.”

Gruen, while singed, supports diversity. Abuse, he says, “drags the conversation into well worn grooves and away from more interesting things,” but “I don’t feel particularly righteous about this (well to the extent that I do I don’t think it’s of any particular worth to me or anyone else). I think there are a bunch of useful experiments going on round the net and it’s all pretty interesting.”

It is indeed. Mainstream media doesn’t have to deal with this stuff. Letters to the editor pages are so much more controllable. And so are some mainstream media blogs. Paul Kelly, for example, writes not so much a blog as a column with comments. Meanwhile Fairfax experiments with being edgy and still being Fairfax.

It will be interesting to see, in a few days, what’s been said about Crikey on Catallaxy. Will it be debate, or abuse?

Peter Fray

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